American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius, is a beauty to behold and sought after in markets all over the globe. American ginseng still grows wild, but its population is dwindling as overharvesting takes its toll, even from years past.

The key to keeping this species of ginseng alive and well in the wild comes from a multitude of conservation and repopulation efforts; however, it is first important to understand where ginseng grows and why the crop has been so economically important.

In this article, HerbSpeak will discuss where American ginseng grows natively and wild, helping you understand the ecology of ginseng throughout the United States.

Ginseng Hunting

Ginseng hunting, colloquially referred to as ‘seng hunting, is the act of going out into the forest to search for wild ginseng to harvest. These hunters learned the patches where the plant grew, as well as common companion plants ginseng grew near.

In most cases, ginseng poachers do not think about the overall health of the species, nor are they concerned about the dwindling numbers of wild ginseng and how taking this plant from its ecosystem affects the environment around it. This plant, to ginseng poachers, is a way to get rich; a way to temporarily increase their wealth status.

Often, in the interest of keeping their yearly harvest abundant, they would re-seed the natural earth around where wild ginseng grew, but the germination chances are low, and the hungry squirrels are abundant.

For a long time, in ginseng’s native region of the Appalachian forests, these ‘seng hunters were abundant. (1) People would make their livings on harvesting and selling ginseng, passing the tradition down to the next heir in the family. It was simply what was done, and what had always been.

Few can imagine a plant winking out of existence like this, but this is exactly what happened to Asian ginseng, or Panax ginseng. Because it takes years for the plants to reach maturity, all it takes is harvesting the plant faster than it can mature to for over-harvesting to begin taking its toll on the species.

“Anyone in the trade will tell you that compared to when they started, it’s getting harder to find these plants in the wild, and the ones they do find are smaller,”

- Randy Cottrell, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Now, most of the ginseng that reaches the market is cultivated ginseng, or wild-cultivated ginseng, not truly wild ginseng.

Fortunately, it is not too late for conservation efforts. Because a wild population still exists, though small, the efforts in cultivating ginseng can help take the pressure away from wild ginseng populations and allow the crops to grow back as the years go on.

American Ginseng’s Ecology

Once you are in the plant’s native habitat and know what ginseng looks like, you can trust that you don’t go tromping through the woods and accidentally walk through a healthy crop.

The plant typically emerges in late April to Early May and the green berries turn bright red in fall, giving it a distinct look when it is mature. Without those tell-tale signs, however, most people pass ginseng up as just another underbrush herb.

This plant is a food source for many animals in the forest, from deer, to squirrels, slugs, and even voles. These animals rely on ginseng’s berries to provide a source of nutrition before the winter, and in turn they help ginseng repopulate as seeds are buried or left in fertilizer.

The prominence of this representative understory plant has led to its use as a phytometer to better understand how environmental changes are affecting many lesser-known species that constitute the diverse temperate flora of eastern North America.”

- James B. McGraw

Ginseng has also been utilized as a phytometer on the effects of climate change, (2) as its population is sensitive to changes in the environment and can help scientists understand how the weather is changing over time and the effect that has on surrounding plants.

Where Does Ginseng Grow? (Map)

Wild American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius, is native to the deciduous forest of the United States, from the Midwest to Maine, and further north into Eastern Canada. The most popular habitat where wild ginseng is found is throughout the Appalachian and Ozark region.

In USDA zone maps, ginseng can grow in zones 3 through 7. It has been known to grow in zone 8 on occasion.

The native habitat of wild ginseng includes the following states:

Maine New Hampshire Vermont
Rhode Island Connecticut New York
Pennsylvania Delaware Maryland
Indiana West Virginia Virginia
South Carolina Georgia Kentucky
Alabama Mississippi Michigan
Missouri Arkansas Louisiana
Iowa South Dakota Nebraska
Oklahoma Massachusetts North Carolina
Minnesota New Jersey Tennessee
Kansas Ohio Illinois

Because ginseng can generally tolerate the climate of other states, Zones 3-8 encompass almost every other region in the United States except Alaska and Hawaii. Ginseng cannot tolerate the high tropical heat of Hawaii or the arctic cold of Alaska.

There are some areas of the United States which Ginseng cannot tolerate the year-round climate, and those areas are in the southern tip of Florida and Texas, as well as western Arizona, into southern California.

The reasons for ginseng’s intolerance in these particular climates can range from too much to too little rain, too high or too low temperatures, or too short of a growing season.

Since ginseng is found in the shade of deciduous, mixed hardwood trees, that environment must be present for ginseng to thrive.

In northern states, these forests typically contain trees such as the sugar maple, black cherry, and white ash. In southern states, ginseng typically grows around poplar, hickory, and oak trees.

Where Does Ginseng Grow the Most?

American ginseng grows the most abundantly in deciduous, mixed hardwood forests that have had several years to mature naturally, with plant decay that has allowed the soil to become rich and well-draining with a high organic content.

Ginseng grows the most in sandy loam soils with a pH between 5.0 and 6.5. This soil pH range discourages bacterial diseases and helps the plant absorb all the nutrients it needs to develop into a healthy adult plant.

The average temperature for the area should fall somewhere between 50-degrees Fahrenheit where all four seasons are present so the plant can be exposed to sub-freezing weather for at least a few weeks out of the year.

If ginseng is being grown outside of its native habitat, it will require some aid in adjusting to the climate to ensure its survival. Often, ginseng farmers utilize grow tents and natural, packed snow to help simulate the native climate of ginseng.

Outside of its native habitat, ginseng may take longer to grow to full maturity, or the crop yield may be lower when cultivating wild-simulated ginseng. Year-round temperature controls and planning ahead for adjusting the environment around ginseng will be necessary for anyone growing ginseng indoors or cultivating a patch of ginseng in their backyard woodlot outside of the native region.

ginseng quinquefolius plant

What Side of the Hill Does Ginseng Grow on?

It is true that ginseng requires a very specific habitat to grow. Like those of us who wake up on the wrong side of the bed in the morning, ginseng will be difficult to cultivate or work with when its environmental conditions are not met.

Ginseng is known for having a specific side of the hill that it grows on. The side of the hill determines how much natural sunlight the plant receives daily and how filtered it is through the canopy. The side of the hill that ginseng grows on is usually Eastern or Northern-facing slopes of its deciduous, mixed hardwood forests.

These forested hills are common in the Appalachian and Ozark regions, making it the perfect place for ginseng to grow. There should be 60-90% shade provided by the canopy of neighboring trees so that the plant’s delicate leaves do not burn in the midday sun.

The soil on the eastern and northern slopes of these hills should be well-draining, which means the ground may be difficult to traverse. When wild-simulated cultivating ginseng, it is important to keep in mind that even though it is not a wild crop, it is still in the wild and requires precautions to prevent injury to you or the plant.

Knowing Local Ginseng Laws and Regulations

The laws and regulations around ginseng are important to understand, even if you are purchasing starter plants from reputable sources and want nothing more than to cultivate ginseng for your personal use.

Regulations and laws are always subject to change and any nuances or questions should be discussed with the local wildlife authority before you begin your cultivation.

It is important to always check your state, province, or federal laws around the cultivation, possession, and trade of ginseng, especially if you decide to cultivate it in woodlands or on land where wild ginseng might grow.

“In 1975, ginseng was placed on the CITES Appendix II Species, which means that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can regulate its trade. This also means that, to harvest wild ginseng, it must be done to the specification of the state in which it was harvested, and you must be approved for a harvest permit.

The laws are even more restrictive in Canada, where the low ginseng population has become even more unsustainable.”

- HerbSpeak, "How to Grow Ginseng"

Ginseng is commonly regulated on a state level while import and export is handled on a federal level. Laws can change often, so always ensure any approved licenses and papers are up to date.

Ginseng is also regulated between states, meaning ginseng farmers will need a permit to ship the root out of state, whether they are bringing it themselves by vehicle or using a shipping carrier. Online sales will often require the individual to become a licensed dealer. The requirements for this vary by the state of sale, as well as the state of purchase.

In addition to sales permits, it is also important to research any permits or licensure necessary for growing ginseng.

While the sentiment should go without saying, any aspiring ginseng farmer should grow ginseng on property they have permission to grow on, or on their own property. Never grow crops on land without permission, and most certainly not on state or federal land if you intend to harvest the crop.

Why is Ginseng Illegal to Grow in Some States?

Contrary to popular belief, it is not illegal to grow ginseng in any state. It is, however, illegal to harvest wild ginseng in many states.

If you want to grow ginseng as a cultivated crop, you should get in contact with your local wildlife and forestry department to determine whether there are any permits or licenses you need, and you should always have permission to grow on the land you are sowing the crops, but it is completely legal to grow ginseng.

No forestry service wants to discourage the growth of cultivated ginseng when it can help rebuild the numbers of wild populations. The following states allow legal harvesting of ginseng on your property or public lands as of 2020:

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • Georgia
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Kentucky
  • Maryland
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Ohio
  • Pennsylvania
  • Tennessee
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin

Remember that harvesting ginseng is illegal no matter what if it is done on another person’s property without permission. When done with cultivated ginseng, this is considered crop poaching.

The wild harvesting of ginseng is incredibly harmful to the ginseng population and the numbers are already unsustainably low unless serious action is taken.

Some states take steps to cultivate the wild ginseng crop and offer individuals – who have the proper permit and abide by regulations around harvesting – the ability to harvest wild ginseng during certain times of the year.

The ginseng harvest season, for many states, begins September 1st and ends November 30th.

Harvesting the plant during the off-season, without a permit, in states that do not offer these permits, or harvesting plants that are too young is illegal. This includes any part of the plant, from root, to seed, to leaf. Whether a permit is offered and the guidelines around harvesting wild ginseng should be discussed with your local wildlife authority.

Illegal harvesting of ginseng in any manner, whether crop poaching or illegally harvesting wild ginseng is punishable by fine or jailtime. The offense, in many states, can carry a misdemeanor offense with up to 6 months of jailtime and/or a fine up to $5,000.  

Understanding the Ginseng Plant Market: How Much Does a Pound of Ginseng Sell for?

Ginseng, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is exported in larger volumes than any other CITES plant, typically to Chinese buyers. (3) In 2014 alone, the U.S. exported $77 million worth of ginseng, and this was before the “natural wellness” trends took ahold of the market.

“in Asia, Wisconsin has been recognized for its ginseng for nearly a century. The U.S. sends $80 million worth of ginseng roots to China each year, according to a 2005 report by Wanfang Data in Beijing”

- Forbes, "Ginseng Maverick"

Wild ginseng is so near extinction that one root can go for upwards of $1,000, but it comes with enough risk to outweigh the potential benefits.

For the aspiring ginseng farmer, expect cultivated ginseng to sell for a lot less than wild ginseng. Contrary to what some publications on the internet might say, ginseng farmers do not typically get $1,000 per root, and you are not going to get $1,000 per pound of roots.

The cultivated ginseng market is always fluctuating but cultivated ginseng can fetch anything from $100 to $500 per pound, depending on the location where the ginseng was grown and what markets it is sold to.

The prices you can command for a pound of ginseng root also depends on your method of cultivation and the market you are selling to.

While the market has been in a downtrend since 1975, demand is expected to continue to outweigh the supply. That tip in the scales is expected to contribute to growth of the market on a global scale, and hopefully, it will also help contribute to the sustainable cultivation of American ginseng, helping re-establish a wild population many years from now.

Identifying and Growing Ginseng

Ginseng is an ecologically important crop to keep alive in the deciduous forests of Appalachia and the Ozark. Only with conservation efforts and repercussions for harvesting can the illegal ginseng trade be stymied, allowing the wild population to re-grow, if it ever will.

If providing the ginseng population with an olive branch through diverting the market and ‘seng hunters further towards cultivated ginseng has piqued your interest as a calling, then you are one of the few who is still willing to give Panax quinquefolius a fighting chance.

If you want to learn more about how to identify ginseng, where ginseng grows, and how to grow it, click the link below to purchase the HerbSpeak publication How to Grow Ginseng: A Guide to Identifying, Growing, and Harvesting American Ginseng, available in both eBook and print formats.

Want to Learn More About Ginseng?

Enjoy more in-depth information about how to identify, grow, and harvest your own American ginseng crop in HerbSpeak's new book: How to Grow Ginseng.

In this book, you’ll learn everything you need to know about growing ginseng – specifically American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius – and how to care for this wonderful plant from seed to harvest.

Beyond that, you’ll learn why such a small root has earned such an honorable reputation, and what you can do to help keep this plant in our lives no matter what your motivation for growing ginseng is.

Your journey into the world of ginseng starts here.

References
  1. Rene Ebersole, Demand for Ginseng is Creating a Wild West in Appalachia, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2020/01/ginseng-root-appalachia
  2. McGraw JB, Lubbers AE, Van der Voort M, Mooney EH, Furedi MA, Souther S, Turner JB, Chandler J. Ecology and conservation of ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) in a changing world, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23398402/
  3. Forbes, Ginseng Maverick, https://www.forbes.com/global/2007/0507/042.html?sh=43c72bbe45df